After going 2-0-1 in group play, the United States Women’s National Team faced off against France in the final of the 2015 Algarve Cup in Portugal yesterday. It was a rematch for both teams who played each other about a month ago in Lorient, France when France came out on top with a 2-0 win. The final at the Algarve was just the opposite as the USWNT sailed to a 2-0 victory. The U.S. came out strong and confident maintaining possession much better than they had a month prior. That mentality and play translated to an early goal as Julie Johnston converted a header off of a Lauren Holiday free kick in the 7th minute. It was Johnston’s first of her international career. The early goal allowed for the momentum to be in the USWNT’s favor for much of the first half. Their second goal came right before the break at the 41st minute mark when Christen Press displayed an incredible individual effort by slicing through the French defense and firing a low shot into the back netting from just outside the 18. In the second half France possessed the ball better but the U.S. closed the door on the few opportunities they had including a PK in the 81st minute. It was awarded to France after Meghan Klingenberg was whistled for taking down Marie-Laure Delie in the box. Hope Solo read the kick the whole way. She dove to her right and knocked away one of France’s best opportunities to score. As the clock wound down, France failed to mount a comeback and the USWNT walked away from the tournament as the 2015 Algarve Cup Champions.
Overall I believe this was the best performance of the tournament for the USWNT especially against a formidable opponent like France. The game was intense and physical the whole way through. It was something you’d expect from two top teams. Unfortunately I don’t think France played with the same amount of confidence they did a month ago. It was either that or the U.S. just stopped any early momentum in France’s favor.
In my opinion every player on the pitch did well in the final. Sure there’s always room for improvement and it’s not like they played a perfect match (it can never be perfect), but the effort was there for everyone as this team had one goal in mind (to win the Algarve Cup) and came away with it. Hope Solo put up her strongest game in net so far considering her shaky start exactly a week ago. She was challenged more in this match than she had been during the rest of the tournament, but she passed with flying colors. Julie Johnston, who I think had a decent first match last Wednesday and a sub-par second match on Friday, played a solid defensive game in the final. She came out strong, but scoring that opening goal gave her an abundance of confidence going forward as she played her best match of the tournament.
Defender Becky Sauerbrunn who played her 4th consecutive complete game had an excellent performance. Becky was called upon from the get-go to play a huge role when Christie Rampone, who was getting back to match fitness after an injury suffered in the January camp, and Whitney Engen, who had a hamstring injury, were left out for the entirety of the tournament. In the last year Rampone, Engen, and Sauerbrunn had been rotating as central defenders. In the 4 years since the last Women’s World Cup, Becky Sauerbrunn’s growth as a player has been immense. She was named Defender of the Year in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) for the last 2 years (the NWSL has only been in existence for 2 years) and was part of the FC Kansas City squad that came away with the NWSL title this past September. With longtime USWNT centerback Christie Rampone hitting the age of 40 this summer during the World Cup, Sauerbrunn proved she’s ready to step up and be a leader for this team in Canada. She’s a player that this team needs to be successful this summer. With her consistently solid play, she’ll no doubt provide that strong defensive role for her team.
I thought the one weak point of this match for the USWNT was during the final 10 minutes of play and 3 minutes of stoppage time. It seemed as though they sat back much more, gave away possessions, and let France control the play. I know 90 minutes is a long time and there were some tired legs out there, but had France scored in those final minutes, momentum would have shifted. As a longtime hockey fan, I’ve constantly heard how a 2 goal lead is the worst lead in hockey, and I’ve seen why on plenty of occasions. I know soccer is a completely different game (although there are some similarities), but 10 minutes plus stoppage time is enough time to put away 2 goals. Fortunately it seemed like France’s efforts to score were a bit lackluster. In an elimination match in June that’s sure to change. So along with that change, I would also hope the team responds by controlling the play and limiting France’s possession as the clock winds down.
Finally before I wrap this up. I wanted to bring up something I’ve noticed from watching the USWNT play since the coaching change last April when Jill Ellis took over for Tom Sermanni. I mentioned bringing this up in the last blog post after talking about Meghan Klingenberg making a statement for herself to be the starting left back in the World Cup. Both Klingenberg and Press have been getting a lot more minutes within the last year as well as Whitney Engen. Also within the last year Ashlyn Harris has replaced Nicole Barnhart and newly-retired Jill Lloyden as Hope Solo’s back-up. Don’t get me wrong, I believe these players have worked hard to be in those positions, but it seems peculiar that the minutes for these players really started to pick-up since Ellis took over. The thing is though along with Ellis, Tony Gustavsson came in as an assistant coach. Gustavsson coached Klingenberg and Press when they played for Tyresö FF of Sweden (the team folded last year shortly after their appearance in the UEFA Women’s Champion’s League Final) . Klingenberg played there from 2012-2014. Press played from early 2013-2014. Gustavsson was the coach from 2012-2014. He also brought in Engen, Harris, and Ali Krieger in late 2013 to help the squad during their Champion’s League run. He was an assistant with the USWNT in 2012, but at the time Pia Sundhage was the head coach. It seems since the coaching change Gustavsson has definitely had an influence on the team. It might be the case that the playing time for some players, Press and Klingenberg in particular, has increased due to the fact that Gustavsson has some pull on the U.S. bench.
Like I said, Press and Klingenberg are both fantastic players. They’ve gotten better and deserve to play for the USWNT. Ashlyn Harris is an extremely hard worker and it’s rewarding to see her play as the number two goalkeeper for this team after being left off the last World Cup roster because she “needed to develop more” and not making the Olympic roster due to injury. However, it’s just interesting to see how politics may play a slight role in all of it. I guess it happens in every sport. I could be totally wrong too. Maybe Ellis has seen something in all these players for a while now and they’re finally getting their chance to shine.
No matter what the case is though, I hope they’re ready for the World Cup. I hope the whole team is ready from the players to the coaches and everyone in between. Because now that the Algarve Cup is over, a little less than 3 months remain until the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup begins. There’s 4 matches left and the USWNT still hasn’t reached their peak. If the Algarve Cup was any indication though, the team is definitely improving. By June I expect to see a group of players ready to battle at the highest level in one of the greatest tournaments in the world for the ultimate prize. It isn’t easy to become world champions, but I would count on the United States Women’s National Team to put up one hell of a fight to get that crown.
Here are the highlights from yesterday’s final at the Algarve: